Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A World Now Almost Unknown

The talented young presenter at the creative writing seminar did her best to convince us that we should choose subjects we know, and then write about the people, places, and things with which we are most familiar. Her closing words were “Strive for authenticity!”

“But,” I wondered, “If I write about my world, will there be any readers out there who have the slightest idea what I am saying?” Not wanting to waste the valuable seminar lessons, I decided to give it a try. So here goes:

I remember well the day when our family got its first telephone. That was definitely a highlight in my life, so there may be a good place to start this tale. Today everyone is familiar with phones. But I can hardly describe the excitement of getting our first phone without mentioning that we were on a “party line.” And that will require more explanation. And I’ll have to convince some readers that the early phones had no pushbuttons or even a dial, but only a crank you turned to make all your calls. Back then, each phone on a party line had its own special series of long and/or short rings, such as “short-long-short,” or “long-short-long.”

The combination of two, three, or four such rings told everyone on the party line whose number was being called. A person from that household answered, while there were usually at least several other people on the line who just ‘listened in” or “rubbernecked” to keep up on the local news. For calls out and beyond the party line, one medium-length ring was used to connect the caller with the local “central office,” usually in a nearby small town. The “operator” there would manually make the necessary connection to put through a medium or long distance call. And one long, continued ring was the 9-1-1 of its day, and was used to summon everyone on the line to the phone. They would listen for the message that followed the “long ring,” and if there was an emergency, they would all come running to help out. Back then, many phone numbers consisted of only one, two, or three digits.

Today, when a large part of our world appears to be powered by “double A” batteries, many of the readers I hope to reach just might not believe there was a time when a radio required several different sizes of dry batteries, plus a six-volt storage battery. When that big battery started to run down, it could be exchanged with the one in a car, and thus get recharged by the car’s generator, provided it had not been run down so far it lacked the power to crank and start the engine. Just to make sure, some folks parked their car at the top of a steep hill before making the exchange.

Before television became such a big part of our lives, magazines made up an important part of the entertainment of many. I remember those publications as being quite “reader friendly,” and did not require wading through many pages of advertising material to find a good readable, enjoyable article. And I don’t remember any of those nuisance “reply cards” that annoy us today, and that many of us tear out and discard before reading a magazine.

The better magazines contained very well-written and useful articles that were educational and dealt with life and the world around us. Some, including The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, and Country Gentleman had great fiction stories, some short and some long enough to be continued in three or four issues. A number of these stories were of high enough quality to later be made into movies. I remember one in particular, “Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!” that was filmed with June Haver, Lon McAllister, and Walter Brennan in the starring roles.

Perhaps some of my words will find a few readers out there who grew up on farms back in the 20s, 30s or 40s. They will understand if I tell of a time when you didn’t eat breakfast until after the cows were milked. There may even be a few who remember balancing on a one or two-legged milk stool while learning to milk a cow by hand. Also using a three-tined fork to feed the cows hay and a five-tined fork and shovel and perhaps even a wheelbarrow to clean up at the other end of the animals. Some may remember “hog chores” and “chicken chores,” including gathering and washing eggs.

Most farm kids and quite a few town kids once learned, at an early age, how to plant and take care of gardens. Also how to harvest fruits and vegetables and help prepare them for canning. We learned how to cut potatoes into seed pieces, making sure there were two buds or “eyes” on each piece. And how to drop them into shallow holes or trenches, step them down firmly into the ground and kick loose dirt over them. We always tried to drop them with the cut side down and the eyes up, so the sprouts would have the shortest possible route to the top of the ground.

In addition to the garden work, there was usually a lawn to be mowed by “kid power,” with a reel-type “push” lawn mower. Often, in those days before chemical herbicides, there were weeds to hoe or pull in the corn fields. And each summer there was grain to be shocked, and the haymaking season always required a youngster to “lead the horse on the hayfork.”

I can only hope there still a few readers out there who played “baseball” in a cow pasture, using a tennis ball and a piece of 1 X 4 lumber for a bat, and with tall weeds, burlap sacks, blocks of wood, or dried out cow pies for bases. People my age who attended one-room country schools played kick the can,

hide-and-seek, and ante over at recess and noon hour. And in the winter, rode their sleds, played fox-and-geese, and made angels in the snow.

Some readers may remember a time when all of the water used for drinking, cooking, and washing was pumped by hand and carried into the house in pails. Hot water was not obtained from a faucet, but from a “reservoir” built into the end of the wood-fired kitchen “cook stove.” Or a teakettle on the stove’s flat top. Water for washing clothes was heated on top of the stove in a “wash boiler,”

I hope I can make contact with some readers who remember a time when some farmers still drove into town with horse-drawn wagons or buggies, and in the winter with bobsleds or lighter vehicles that had sleigh runners instead of wheels and were commonly called “cutters.” A time when there were few paved roads, more graveled roads, and dirt roads – which became “mud roads” when it rained. And days when there were few trucks on the road and many farmers still hauled their fattened hogs to the stockyards in horse-drawn wagons.

Back then, farm children were still quite small when they learned to carry in wood from the woodpile or woodshed to fill a “woodbox” in the house. And later how to split firewood to “heating stove size” with an axe. It had to be split up into even smaller, slimmer chunks for the kitchen range. Some was split ultra-fine for use as “kindling wood” for starting the fires in the morning.

Hopefully I can share these thoughts with a few who, on crisp, cold winter evenings, were fortunate enough to hear the music of real honest-too-goodness sleigh bells singing out their merry tune to the rhythm of a team of high-stepping, spirited horses.

As I write, I can only wonder how many readers will stop and think of their own many and varied experiences along life’s way, the bad as well as the good, both the hard work and the play, and realize that these were, for the most part, what shaped our lives and supplied many of the building blocks that made (or make) us what we are today.

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